The Danger is not imaginary. Republican-controlled state legislatures are even now drafting and passing laws to limit what can be taught in schools. I begin by quoting a message from Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, from the “Fortnightly News,” an online publication dated June 29, 2021. Beneath Grossman’s statement, I attach a letter from Heather Cox Richardson, one of the country’s foremost political bloggers.
Grossman and Richardson have identified the danger to American freedom posed by Republican state legislatures. These lawmakers are stipulating what can and cannot be taught about American history. These provisions do not merely violate the First Amendment. They represent in America the kind of thought control Right Wing theorists employ to frighten us about the dangers of socialism in particular and government intervention in general. They, themselves, are injecting at the state level the very tyranny they fear coming from the federal government.
Grossman puts it like this.
“The state of Idaho has recently mandated that no public educational institution “shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” such “tenets” as “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior; that individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin; or that individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.
“Many readers of this newsletter are teachers. If you have directed or otherwise compelled students “to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” just about anything please let me know. I doubt I will receive many responses. I also doubt that our members themselves “adhere” to these tenets. Moreover, a recent AHA survey indicates that depending on how the question is asked, between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans consider it acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others. Yet legislation like this has now passed in at least five states and has been introduced in twenty others.
“The last edition of Fortnightly News linked to a statement, now endorsed by over 120 organizations including six higher education accreditors, explaining how “the goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.” The AHA not only opposes this legislation; we are committed to helping our members and other history teachers to participate in the process of healing divisions in American society by studying, learning, and teaching the evolution and impacts of those divisions. This edition of Fortnightly News includes a link to the AHA’s resources for teaching about the history of racist violence in the United States. We are also working on additional related resources. Everything has a history, including the deep and continuing divisions in our nation.”
It will be argued in response that in fact no one supports compelling a state’s students to personally affirm anything . Therefore, defenders of this legislation will say, the AHA is exaggerating the danger. However the most extreme offense –actual compulsion– has a wide penumbra in which a chilling effect could (and is intended to) discourage frank treatment of difficult issues. Even though the worst case scenario would be a rare occurrence, the legislation inserts a fear of discipline, if not prosecution, in a classroom environment that should enjoy and promote free inquiry. Students must be allowed to encounter oppressed peoples and repressed truths. The topics that Idaho’s legislators do not want forcibly affirmed (debates stemming from issues of “sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin”) must be introduced into the curriculum and integrated into a full understanding of our country’s history, warts and all. Unidentified wounds cannot be treated and, left untended, they will bleed us dry.
Heather Cox Richardson’s letter of July 7 advances the same thesis but with different data. In brief, she refers to the forced cancellation of a historical conference on the interpretation of the notorious battle of the Alamo in 1836. Research over the last few decades has substantially revised the glamorous, “patriotic” view of the story taught for so long. It seems that the holdouts at the Alamo were not defending American freedom but the Texas cotton farmers’ desire to hold slaves. Not everyone, though, is happy to have us learn the truth. See her account.
A prerequisite to protecting freedom of speech is the accurate and equitable administration of all elections, but the warnings from Grossman and Richardson indicate what will be lost if we fail to protect our voters.